When I was younger, a couple of Samuel R. Delany’s novels eventually discouraged me from reading any more of his works. I had enjoyed Babel-17, Nova, and Triton (aka Trouble on Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia); but, when I got bored in the middle of Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (SiMPLGoS), I turned to Dhalgren, whereupon I gave up on the author for over twenty years. I recently read SiMPLGoS and enjoyed it immensely (it is now my favourite Delany novel), and I even managed to struggle through Dahlgren, learning to appreciate its brilliance (although it is not a novel to be taken lightly: a steadfast immersion is required). So I thought I’d try The Einstein Intersection (a novel that is reputedly difficult), and I’m glad I didn’t read it when I was younger; it would have been too different. Fortunately, after reading Dhalgren, The Einstein Intersection is a walk in the park.
I think in this short novel Delany is showing off (or he was a heck of a lot smarter than I was at the tender age of twenty-three), but if the reader can struggle through the confusing patches there are delights to be had. Delany is definitely not for everyone, but the novel includes some wonderfully lyrical writing, and the story is quite satisfying if you’re able to immerse yourself in his world-vision. It amazes me that Delany was published in a pulp fiction market. His working title for the book was A Fabulous, Formless Darkness (from a William Butler Yeats work he’d quoted), but it was ‘re-worked’ by the publisher, Ace Books (of garish covers and low-priced packaging fame). Ace‘s main audience was teenage boys who wanted formulaic plots with the usual science fiction stereotypes; Delany employed the stereotypes, but twisted them into unusual perspectives. Even though he set his stories far in the future, they were designed to describe the world as it was.
The novel takes place on Earth; however, it is set tens-of-thousands of years into the future: myths run rampant and are only partially explained at the crossroads of logic and irrationality (with tongue firmly planted in cheek, I’d suggest searching at the corner of Einstein Street and Gödel Avenue). Two of the major themes are travel, through space, time, and thought, as echoed in Delany’s travels through the Mediterranean, Spain, and Greece (which he relates in between-chapter notes), and difference from the ‘norm’, as demonstrated by the mutating aliens, who are attempting to maintain a sense of conformity while sifting through the gossamer memories of a sentient species — humanity — that has vanished.
Humanity has long since moved on and the Earth is radioactive, which causes rapid genetic mutations in the aliens. Some are born as non-functionals, and are kept in a kage, where they are watched over and protected. It is unclear where the humans have gone; perhaps they are nothing but psychic memories. The aliens have become anthropologists, attempting to interpret the spirit of humanity, researching by immersion: they adopt human form and re-enact fragments of humanity’s stories, integrating mythological accounts and pop-culture, which they are unable to separate as different types of memory. To some extent, the pop-culture inclusions date the book, but it is the concept that is important, and the pop-culture aspects are possibly essential to Delany’s ideology.
There is at least one modern alien metropolis on Earth (Branning-at-sea), but the protagonist, Lobey (an Orpheus and Theseus archetype, with many characteristics of the Roman God Pan) is a sheep herder in a small village. After Lobey’s lover — Friza — is killed, he sets off on a quest to avenge her in a pseudo-reenactment of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. Other mythical beings and real-life pop-icons (Ringo Starr, Hades, Billy the Kid, the Minotaur (and Phaedra, Theseus, and Ariadne), Elvis, Odin, and others) are infused into the Orpheus myth, resulting in a fair bit of fanciful confusion.
The reader is immersed in the alien’s milieu, just as the aliens are immersed in the quagmire of humanity’s psychic memories. Within the body of the novel Delany has included some travel-notes that he wrote while wandering through foreign lands, while creating the novel. At one point [p.119 (1998 Ed.)], he writes: “…perhaps on rewriting I shall change Kid Death’s hair from black to red.” But the reader has already encountered the character, and his hair is red, which demonstrates Delany’s interest in time, events in time, and awareness; what has been, what might have been, and what is. And he has also set up a conscious association between the author, the reader, and the words on the page (something he does to a dizzying degree in Dhalgren). At another point [p. 65 (1998 Ed.)], Delany implicitly states that “…the central subject of the book is myth.”
It is a book full of myth and peppered with confusion; nevertheless, if you enjoy a story that requires some cobbling together and leaves you thinking after you finish, I highly recommend it; along with Dhalgren, Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, and the Return to Nevèrÿon series, it displays Delany at his myth-spinning best.
Some Extraneous Stuff:
What happened to the humans and what are the aliens?
- It is possible that humanity caused an apocalyptic event, leaving the Earth radioactive. The aliens then found the planet, and are attempting to understand the species that destroyed itself.
- It may be that humanity somehow exited this plane of existence (to a higher evolutionary state), and the surface radiation comes from tunnels below the planet. The radiation leakage is controlled — released — in order to provide more genetic variation in the aliens, who are attempting to recreate the achievements of humanity.
- It is possible that the aliens are in a virtual reality, a simulation (several times Lobey is told he is ‘real’; as opposed to what?). This would explain the unusual abilities of some characters, and the possibility of characters ‘coming back to life.’ Perhaps Lobey, and the others, are not aliens, but the beings that inherited the Earth after the humans ‘disappeared.’ Perhaps they are the descendants of humanity (the meek, who inherited the Earth) and are attempting to build a utopian, human-like society.
Some of the notes I made while reading (mostly obvious stuff; some potential spoilers (but I don’t think they ‘spoil’ anything)):
- Lo: male (e.g.: Lo Lobey)
- La: female (e.g.: La Dire)
- Le: androgyne (e.g.: Le Dorik)
- Different: an evolved super-mutant (perhaps a ‘real’ being?)
- Lobey: The protagonist, a different. Orpheus/Theseus archetype. He has many characteristics of the Roman God Pan: he plays his machete-flute; he has a face with animal characteristics; he has a normal body above the waist; he has hips, thighs and calves of a man twice his size; and his legs are very hairy. His formal name, Lo Lobey, is similar to the word lullaby, and he can play the music in other people’s minds. It is interesting that he is a 23 year-old male with brown skin: Delany, a black man, was 23 while writing the book (Delany is also bisexual, notably different from the norm, especially in 1967. Is Lobey bisexual? I think there are some hints that he is). He is reenacting the Orpheus myth: he wants to bring Friza back to life. He wants to kill Kid Death. He is also a Job archetype, tortured by Kid Death/the devil
- Friza: Lobey’s lover, the Eurydice to his Orpheus. A different, with the power of telekinesis. She cannot speak (though she can laugh), which infers a connection to Ringo, ‘the Beatle who didn’t sing’, and Green-Eye. It is unclear exactly how she is killed, but poisonous snakes are mentioned, she died under a tree, and Kid Death (the serpent?) was definitely the murderer. Kid Death revives her, briefly, at points in the narrative, to torture Lobey
- PHAEDRA (Psychic Harmony Entanglements and Deranged Response Association): an ‘AI oracle’ from humanity’s dead past. Suggested that Lobey should “Kid Death along for a little while…” [p.31 (1998 Ed.)]. In Greek mythology Phaedra married Theseus after he killed the Minotaur, who is mimicked by the creature that Lobey defeats before meeting PHAEDRA in the cave. PHAEDRA also eludes to Ariadne’s thread (symbolized in the book by the snaking computer paper printout), which helped Theseus defeat the Minotaur in the labyrinth
- Kid Death: The antagonist. A different. Can murder people with his mind. Billy the Kid archetype (he tells Lobey that his mother called him Bonny William); also, the devil, Hades, et cetera. He murdered Friza (and many others). He needs Green-Eye and Lobey for some reason(s). He cannot kill Green-Eye
- Spider: A different, with very strong telekinesis powers. An intellectual. Cattle (dragon) herder archetype. A Judas archetype. Killed Kid Death’s father, at the request of Kid Death. Gatekeeper to Hades/hell
- Green-Eye: a different; he can perform miracles and even raise people from the dead. Odin, and Christ (virgin birth) archetype. He is mute, like Friza.He undergoes rituals as the Christ figure (the crucifixion: Palm Sunday celebration), and Odin (who was hung on a tree for ten days and also gave up one eye).
- The Dove: ubiquitous sex symbol