Second book by Samuel Delany, second book I positively adore. Thoroughly impressive, I don’t think I’ve highlighted this much in any book in the past year, and it’s a really short book at that. Describing it wouldn’t do it justice, and so soon after reading it, I can’t even try.
Everything is beautiful. The language, and language levels. The expanding point of view. (The actual, breaking-the-fourth-wall narrator! Who is not even the only person to break the fourth wall.) The devil-kitty (eight legs, cupped feet for climbing everywhere, and a more complex mind than all the humans on the starting planet. The verb for its movement is “octopeded”. Di’k is the star of the show). The simplex-complex-multiplex idea. How he casually does huge, real-feeling background worldbuilding in a sentence or two. It’s all so elegant.
And of course, the slavery. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better, more heart-breaking take on slavery in science fiction.
(And that’s young Delany! No wonder that brain of his makes his nonfiction books sometimes too dense to read. What a mind.)
Oh also, the fact that a highly multiplex sentient computer manipulates reality just to make a joke about Oscar Wilde and his lover is so Delany. (It’s very rewarding if the names Alfred, Bosie and Oscar in combination mean something to you, I expect it’s a bit confusing otherwise, but in that case you just share the protagonist’s confusion.) And that’s just setting the reader up for literary allusions, of which there are many – some called out, some just put in. Invictus quotes,
Beware: full spoilers! Also probably incomplete and possibly incomprehensible.
Comet Jo is a simplex mind on a simple planet. He sees aliens land – they die, destroyed by their ship. In the last moment, one of them appears to him in his own mirror image, telling him to go to Empire Star, whereas the other, a Tritovian, transforms into a crystal, to avoid dying for now, to go along. Jo grabs the crystal (multiplex mind, narrator!) and the devil kitty (<3 eight legs, complex mind), and decides to get off planet, working his way first towards Earth, to see the real Brooklyn Bridge that the construct above his planet is named for, then to Empire Star.
On the ship he sees the Lll. They are slaves. They built most of the Empire. They make you feel intense sadness, which is framed as a protection the Empire affords them. The shuttle bums (crew) play music for them, to keep them alive and happy, all the while feeling that sadness. It’s hard work. (Turns out, owners have to feel that all the time, not just in their presence.) The only passenger and owner of the seven Lll (incredibly expensive, and the price goes up geometrically), San Severina, gives Jo lessons. She owns the Lll because she has several entire planets to rebuild, after a war thousands of years ago.
Everybody on board knows that he has a message to deliver –they even know more than he does, as they are not as simplex as he. They know the message is about the Lll, for example (because he goes to Empire Star, and is travelling with a Tritovian, who have been pushing for the emancipation of the Lll for thousands of years), and that he needs the elocution lessons to make himself understood. San Severina makes him presentable and takes him along as her protege after the first leg.
He is then tutored and befriended by Lump, a huge multiplex computer that is part Lll, built by a dying Lll to house his consciousness. The Lump is all sorts of amazing – he’s free, which the Empire clearly dislikes, and is willing to join Jo on his journey regardless. (Let’s skip over the extremely Alice-in-Wonderland encounter with a geodesic station.) In an equally trippy situation, they pick up Ni Ty Lee, a completely mad, self-destructive poet.
Ni Ty is like everybody. He’s Jo’s age and also has claws on the fingers of one hand, just like Jo used to, because he once spent three weeks on Jo’s planet. He has done everything and written poems intensely about everything, and he says things that Jewel last said an hour before their crash. They liken Ni’s genius to lots of other tragic poet relationships, with an older and a younger one – these things apparently happen every 25-50 years since romanticism took up. Ni’s older poet was a Lll, Aronlyde (this is who the Lump is based on. They don’t tell Ni Ty). They travelled together. In the end, Ni sold him. He also took lessons from San Severina as a shuttle-bum etc. And as Ni Ty flings himself into the sun, we are finally sure that this has got to be a time travel thing, even if you didn’t pick this up beforehand.
And then the amazing weirdness happens. Everything happens at once, because Jewel really takes over narration, and narrates … multiplexually. Jo has to join the army, who happily are going his way. Jo … absorbs? Jewel into his right eye and becomes really fucking multiplex. Then figures out that his message is about somebody having come to free the Lll, but not him. His job is to get that person ready. So … basically Jo will live through a ton of stuff, only to be able to in the end educate a simplex mind (himself) to free the Lll. They (Lump renamed to Oscar) go visit San Severina. She’s mad from the Lll’s sadness, chained to the floor so they go on working and she can’t kill herself. (When she falls asleep, the Lll stop building. Ownership must be conscious ownership at all times.)
As all society changing actions have to be artistical or criminal, and Jo isn’t an artist like Ni Ty, he’ll become a criminal. He joins the army to get to Empire Star. He meets the heiress of the emperor on board – she’s hiding, because the general will kill her unless she reaches Empire Star first, while her father is about to die. She intends to free the Lll. She has a plan and the power, if only she can get rid of the general. She knows all the details, because she read them in a novel by the Lll who is part of the Lump. (She is travelling with the baby version of the Lump, still tiny.)
Turns out Empire Star is the still point at the heart of the empire. Reality and time is wonky there. Jo puts it together. He figures out that she will also be San Severina. The war with the general will run through space and time, so she’ll be forced to own that many Lll to rebuild. He tells her she’ll meet him, educate him. Gives her the red comb San Severina gave him. She has gone through the same arc as him, is very recently multiplex. She met Ni Ty. She got the Lump off him. Turns out the Lump didn’t know which Lll he was based off until Jo tells him.
Jewel tells us how very long the whole omitted story takes. That Jewel and the devil kitty are with Jo till the end. Charona, Jo’s very first tutor on the planet, sitting there for 400 years just taking care of the port, is also San Severina. The general in his very end gets stepped on by the fully grown devil kitty. Ancient aged Jo teaches baby San Severina the Lll song she plays. And, yes, there will be a final emancipation of the Lll. The Lump’s Lll was one of those freed then. Jo got killed by the general once, which only freed him to use more bodies. The Lump sacrificed himself to kill the general’s mind, shortly before he was killed by the kitty. Go figure it out.