Time Considered As a Helix of Grimy Fingernail Clippings: Samuel R. Delany’s Weirdly Prescient “Driftglass”

Time Considered As a Helix of Grimy Fingernail Clippings: Samuel R. Delany’s Weirdly Prescient “Driftglass” May 14, 2015

I just finished reading a collection of Samuel R. Delany’s short stories and novellas from the mid- to late-’60s, Driftglass (link is to the copy I bought at BookMarx, with the ultra-cheesy fishman cover), and man, I always forget just how good his best work is. Here’s a rundown of what’s in this collection.

“The Star-Pit”: The first story is by far the best–worth the price of admission for this alone. It’s startlingly contemporary. It’s a story about working-class men and their longing for children, their stumbling inability to form the families they long for and their struggle to understand the value of their labor. It’s about mentorship as a way of working out your own needs, and about hometowns and feeling trapped by your home. It’s about despair and selflessness and I would kill for the thrill of first love. All of this in a visceral, tactile story with gorgeous descriptions of alien life and stars and other worlds. If Jennifer M. Silva and Kathryn Edin had a baby that was a 1960s science-fiction story, they would name that baby “The Star-Pit.” A must-read. And, since I’m all about service journalism, I’ll say that if you teach English in a high school this might be an interesting story to get students talking about the meaning and value of procreation.

“Dog in a Fisherman’s Net”: A myth-laden story of deep poverty on a Greek island. Weird, resonant, the kind of thing fantasy readers will like. Is a fisherman worth more than his nets?

“Corona”: Another ultra-prescient story, about celebrity, pop culture as healing-through-community, and reentry after prison. A suicidal child telepath befriends an injured manual laborer, and he gives her a unique gift.

“Aye, and Gomorrah…”: Famous short story about weird sex and, kind of, the social construction of sexuality. I think I’d read it before; this time around I was most struck by how willing the story is to look for meaning in our sexuality: to view sex as a language with which we speak about other longings. It’s a Jungian story, not Freudian.

“Driftglass”: Physical disfigurement, body modification, and extremely hard, dangerous work. Ah, I love his prose. Thorny and scintillating.

“We, In Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line”: More myths (war in Heaven; Hephaestos and Aphrodite) in a tale about connecting an intentionally-isolated community to the power grid.

“Cage of Brass”: The weakest story in the collection. Almost all-dialogue quasi-Gothic tale of Venice and a galactic prison, which sounds awesome, right?, but is actually pretty slight.

“High Weir”: A short, old-fashioned Mars tale, but one with eerie themes: What if you arrived on an alien planet, and recognized yourself for the first time?

“Time Considered as a Helix of Semiprecious Stones”: A Nebula- and Hugo-winning story which deserves praise for its array of images and ideas (the masochistic singer who holds his city together, the underworld code as a kind of liturgical time); also a fairly basic, noirish crime tale. Really enjoyable.

“Night and the Loves of Joe Diconstanzo”: Okay, maybe this is the weakest story, actually. I straight-up didn’t get it, though, so I am the wrong person to judge.

Seriously though, y’all, “The Star-Pit,” get that into your paws.

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