As much as by Keith Phipps, this blog series was inspired by another writer; one Kilgore Trout. Of course, Kilgore Trout is an imaginary construct, but that doesn't mean his impact is not felt in this blog. Kilgore Trout is a character that appears in many of Kurt Vonnegut's novels, and is indeed most likely a surrogate for Vonnegut himself. He's a failed science fiction author, who is wildly prolific, but makes no money from it. His work appears mainly in the back of men's magazines, and by all accounts he's a fairly talentless writer. But where his strength lies is in his ideas, and Vonnegut seems to use him as an in-book outlet for all those ideas he wants to share, but probably can't stretch into a satisfying story. Where the point of Trout's story excerpts may be that he's a bad author, I always think to myself 'man, I would love to read that book'. And of course I'm always out of luck, though, because no such book exists. That isn't to say there aren't books like that, as I'm currently discovering, and today's entry is just the sort of thing I'm was looking for. Not having read much hard sci-fi(which I define as books that can't exist without the science, whereas most of what I read has the science as a hazy catalyst to the book's actual story), I was unfamiliar with Samuel R. Delany, though I gather he's fairly well known within the genre. Although I had never heard of him, his short, early novel The Ballad of Beta-2 turned out to be exactly the sort of thing I was looking for in bargain-bin paperbacks.
The Ballad of Beta-2 has no shortage of big ideas, and for the first half of this book my mind was officially blown. The basic plot concerns Joneny, a student of galactic anthropology, who is sent by his professor to study the art of the Star Folk, particularly the eponymous ballad. The Star Folk are humans who left earth towards the nearest habitable star system, in 12 city-ships, on a journey that would take at least 12 generations. While on their journey, humans on Earth discover faster than light travel, and by the time the ships arrive the system is already colonized. But, something happened during the voyage, something that no scientist has yet discovered, as the Star Folk are mainly given their own space and considered 'evolutionary dead ends' by prevailing wisdom. When the city-ships finally arrived at their destination, there were only 10 remaining, down from 12, and two of those were empty, intact but with gaping holes in their hulls. As I said, there seems to be no real desire by the human society in this book to determine what happened to these city-ships, or in fact to learn anything about them at all. A cursory examination was made when they first arrived, but finding the ships' inhabitants devolved to the point that they have no point of being integrated into human society, they are sent off in a perpetual orbit, in their own corner of the star system, and left there.
Joneny is at first reluctant to pursue this 'evolutionary dead end', and approaches this mystery as trivial. But of course it isn't. Reading through historical records he finds several blank areas, and is amazed that no one thought to study these people any further. Focusing on the Ballad of Beta-2(the Beta-2 was one of the empty city-ships), Joneny is at first unable to comprehend the meaning of the text, both due to the poetic symbolism, and the different way that language evolved in the two societies. As he reads and listens to ship logs, Joneny begins to piece together the meaning behind the ballad, which tells of the destruction that befell the fleet, and he discovers a secret that has been waiting out in those ships for over a hundred years.
The mind-bending finale suffers, though, for being a bit brief. In fact, the book itself suffers from brevity. Calling this a novel would be a bit too generous; at 115 pages, it's padded out by large font and a few blank pages, making it a long short story, or a short novella, but not a novel. With this shortness we get great ideas, but no real opportunity to flesh them out, which is a pity because they practically beg for expansion. On the flip side, Delany seems a little too preoccupied with the Science part of the Fiction, a curse that befalls most sci-fi authors at one point or another, and many are never able to overcome it. Although the science isn't described in technical detail, we're still given too many passages describing minute details and actions that amount to 'Joneny put on his suit and stepped outside'. I may not be the target audience here, though, and this may be a strength in the eyes of more hardcore genre fans. To the casual reader, however, it's a bit daunting.
There are a few other problems with this book, most notably, probably, is the never addressed question of why no one ever met the city-ships halfway to let them know about their nifty new hyper-drive technology, but the strengths are definitely... stronger. The mystery unfolds at a tantalizing, yet swift, pace, and the ideas are intriguing. The historical records lay out, in diary form, a fairly realistic sounding scenario in which eugenics(originally intended as a way to maintain genetic diversity during the long voyage) gives birth to religious mania, where anyone outside of the norm(being too tall, too thin, having the wrong hair color) is a crime punishable by death. The explanation for the ship's de-evolution is convincing, even if the book seems a little light on elucidation, sometimes. Still, this was enough to convince me to pick up another Samuel Delany novel on my last trip to the book store. Dhalgren is widely considered his masterpiece, and at near a thousand pages, it certainly offers him a chance to let his ideas expand and breath. Unfortunately, it could also give him the chance to fill hundreds of pages with off-putting technical jargon, so we'll see which way the coin falls.
[Small note; the cover pictured is not the cover I picked up, although I like this one much better. My scanner isn't hooked up today, and I just grabbed this one off of a google search]