Nekropolis, by Maureen F. McHugh

Nekropolis is a quick read, but there is depth to the tale, which examines several different types of relationship by shifting the point of view in each new section: the first chapter is told by the focal character, Hariba; the second chapter is revealed by her love-interest, Akhmim (who provides an interesting glimpse into a different psyche); the third chapter is related by Hariba’s mother; the penultimate chapter is from the point of view of Hariba’s best friend, Ayesha; and the final chapter returns to the story from Hariba’s point of view. The reader gains insight into the relationships, loyalties, and sacrifices made, from several viewpoints.Nekropolis_McHugh_cover

Hariba’s family lives in the Nekropolis, a poor-area of Morocco in which mausoleums have been converted into tenement-apartments. At the age of twenty-one, Hariba becomes ‘jessed’; an injection biologically imprints loyalty for her owner, Mbarek, a wealthy man (jessing appears to be a kind of nano-biotechnology). Hariba is Mbarek’s housekeeper; she is fortunate, Mbarek is a decent man. He also owns a harni, an artificially manufactured man called Akhmim. Harni are considered sub-human and, at first, Hariba treats Akhmim with derision, but she eventually becomes infatuated with him, and Akhmim becomes ‘impressed’ on Hariba: Akhmim was designed as a male concubine and he wants to please Hariba. An intriguing non-sexual relationship evolves.

Mbarek’s wife becomes disenchanted with Hariba, who is sold to a different household; she misses Akhmim, and they run away together. Hariba becomes sick with jessing-withdrawal and she uses family and friends to help her and Akhmim hide and escape from the authorities.

The story triggers several questions: How can the boundary between obligation and imposition be defined? What are the many faces of love and how strong are its attachments? What are the possible consequences of sudden freedom? Is the idea of freedom a universal concept? What is it in the make-up of humanity that allows hierarchical inequities to develop? Can the search for happiness blind one to the enjoyment possible in the present moment?

I enjoyed Nekropolis, but I would have appreciated a longer work with more depth: the novel felt like a work of short fiction; a handful of short pieces stitched together into a novella.

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Stars in my Pocket, Like Grains of Sand

If I’d attempted to read Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (Stars) when it was first published (1984), I would have undoubtedly thrown it across the room in frustration (I probably would have made it through the lengthy prologue, but the meat of the novel would have strained my patience to the breaking point). Stars inMy Pocket coverThankfully, I’m a much different reader now than I was then: it is a brilliant novel, but it’s certainly not for everyone (one review I read declared that the title was the only enjoyable part of the book). Stars was Samuel R. Delany’s final major work of science fiction, possibly due to disagreements with his publisher, Bantam, after they declined to publish the final volume of his Return to Nevèrÿon saga (Mr. Delany still writes fiction, and is currently a professor of English and Creative Writing at Temple University). Stars is literate science fiction written by an author who understands the conventions of science fiction, as opposed to a science fiction novel written by a literate author. Chapter 10, A Dragon Hunt, is a wonder.

I’ve read several books by Delany (Empire Star, Babel-17, Triton, The Einstein Intersection, Dhalgren, and Tales of Nevèrÿon, as well as his short stories in Aye, and Gomorrah) and enjoyed them, but Stars is a mature, literate work that has aged better than most; it is wonderfully written, and the immersion in alien worlds and culture is unlike anything else I’ve encountered (the Nevèrÿon saga — allegorical sword and sorcery— is somewhat comparable, but I found it more pedantic. Dhalgren is quite another beast, best accepted as a separate entity). Stars is filled with themes, including: cultural and social diversity as a function of hierarchical structure, gender, technology, the role of information on civilization, and sexuality (sex is a significant theme: if you’re prudish, or homophobic, you’d best give this book a pass).

Delany did a wonderful job with gender; sometimes it’s difficult, or impossible, to identify the sex of a character. All characters are referred to as she (her, woman, and womankind are also used) unless the person is sexually interesting to the narrator, Marq Dyeth, who would then refer to the character as him or he. The terms male and female are used, but they are often insignificant to Marq, who is a male from an affluent family, and is attracted to certain other males (in particular, those with bitten, dirty fingernails, a Delany trope). Fairly deep into the story, Marq meets an underprivileged male, Rat Korga (first introduced in the novel’s prologue), who is Marq’s ideal erotic partner (how and why they meet is an important plot-point). Rat Korga was a slave on the planet Rhyonon, and he was the sole survivor when Rhyonon was destroyed, presumably by cultural fugue, which purportedly occurs when a civilization’s culture and technology spiral out of control.

It is a dense book, filled with  ponderings and descriptive prose: the plot moves slowly, but the patient reader is rewarded by the prose and the story’s construction (as an interesting aside, Delany uses subscripts to denote the relative importance of job-related words: “Marq Dyeth’s vocation1 is as an industrial diplomat1 between star systems, but when he returns to his family home he is a docent2 for visiting dignitaries” (p. ; apparently, the subscript convention is based on an aspect of Alfred Korzybski’s theory of general semantics: see the style section in this Wikipedia article for more information).

Delany had originally planned the story as a diptych, but the second book, The Splendor And Misery Of Bodies, Of Cities was never completed (Delany’s motivation died due to two events: he and his partner (Frank Romeo) broke-up, and the AIDS epic began, which impelled him to work on the Nevèrÿon cycle. Delany completed 150 pages of the draft for the second book in the diptych; however, because of conflicting priorities, he suspects that he will never finish it); nevertheless, as a work of fiction, Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, is able to stand on its own, and is probably my favourite work of his (although Dhalgren, and the Nevèrÿon books are also very inspired).

I didn’t find Stars too demanding, but I suppose some readers might find it dry and interminable: the novel is certainly not plot driven. Perhaps it is one of those novels that demand an acquired taste (a bit of postmodern between the covers), but I highly recommend it, especially to readers who enjoy challenging, literary science fiction.

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