Novella Review: “The Star-Pit” by Samuel R. Delany

(Cover by Gray Morrow. Worlds of Tomorrow, February 1967.)

Who Goes There?

Of the SFF authors to have debuted in the ’60s, Samuel R. Delany may well be the best; it helps that his rise to prominence was swift, though it may not have seemed that way at first. Delany debuted with a novel (unlike most of his contemporaries he was a novelist first and foremost) titled The Jewels of Aptor, and quickly followed that up with a trilogy of novels known as the Fall of the Towers trilogy, which you can find as an omnibus. Perhaps the first big sign of Delany’s precocious genius (he was 19 when he wrote The Jewels of Aptor) was the 1965 novella “The Ballad of Beta-2,” which earned him his first Nebula nomination. 1966, however, would mark the beginning of a brief but intense streak which lasted until the end of 1968, as we got his first masterpiece, the Nebula-winning novel Babel-17, one of the few SF works of its time to be concerned chiefly with linguistics, as well as its companion novella “Empire Star.” Delany insisted the two be bundled together, but this did not happen for many years, with “Empire Star” instead being bundled with “The Ballad of Beta-2.”

1967 was the year Delany threw his hat into the ring of the short story, quickly showing that his daunting brilliance showed often just as much in the short form as with his novels and novellas, with “Driftglass,” “Corona,” and his Nebula-winning short story “Aye, and Gomorrah…” being nothing less than the work of an already-refined artist. We also got the Nebula-winning (see a pattern here?) novel The Einstein Intersection, and the following year we got perhaps the best novel from this first phase of his career, Nova, along with the Hugo- and Nebula-winning novelette “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones.” By the time this streak ended, with Delany’s output suddenly screeching to a halt at the end of the ’60s, he was all of 27 years old, and had won a record-breaking four Nebulas in as many years (plus a Hugo), not to mention seven novels in as many years (eight if we count They Fly at Çiron, though it wouldn’t be published until decades later). With the exception of maybe Roger Zelazny, there was no American author to have debuted in the ’60s who shone brighter than Delany.

If we focus too much on the first phase of Delany’s career when in a retrospective mood, I would say it’s for two reasons: firstly, he was incredibly productive at this time, with nearly half of his novels being published between 1962 and 1968, and secondly, it’s hard to overstate how revolutionary Delany was from pretty much the outset. For one thing, he was the first black SFF author of any significance; not to say he was the first black author to have written SFF (W. E. B. Du Bois comes to mind), but he was the first to specialize in SFF, and the first to make his mark in the magazines. “The Star-Pit” (the hyphen would be removed for reprints) was in fact his first story to see magazine publication, and by this point he had already established himself as a formidable force as a novelist. That Delany would only become more ambitious (if also more polarizing) once he came back from his hiatus goes to show the depths of his artistry.

Delany celebrated his 80th birthday this past April. Let’s hope he gets to celebrate another one.

Placing Coordinates

“The Star-Pit” was first published in the February 1967 issue of Worlds of Tomorrow, which is on the Archive. A problem I often run into with novellas is that even the most famous of them don’t get reprinted as often as their short story counterparts (novella-focused anthologies have sadly never quite taken off), but you won’t have much of a problem finding this one. “The Star-Pit” has been reprinted a good number of times, in Judith Merril’s SF 12, in Robert Silverberg’s Alpha 5, in The Arbor House Treasury of Great Science Fiction Short Novels (co-edited by Silverberg and Martin H. Greenberg), in Gardner Dozois’s Modern Classic Short Novels of Science Fiction, and in Delany’s collection Driftglass. If you want a source that’s currently in print then look no further than Delany’s collection Aye, and Gomorrah: Stories, which, as far as I can tell, collects everything in Driftglass plus some later stories. Sadly, Delany was never that prolific in the short form, and it’s all too easy to get a one-volume collection of all of his non-series short works. While the man has been making a big difference by dedicating his time to academia for the past several decades, one has to shudder when thinking about how much more fiction he could’ve written.

Enhancing Image

The story opens with Vyme, our narrator, who at this early point is the father of several children and husbamd in a polygamous marriage. We find out quickly that in the culture Wyme took part in before coming to the Star-pit (more on that in a minute), plural marriage is the norm, and is basically codified for the purpose of producing and raising a myriad of children. The opening scene has Vyme with his oldest son, Antoni, and there’s an accident with a highly advanced terrarium, in which some “sloths” (they’re called that, but they’re described as being closer to small rodents) get loose. One of these sloths ventures too far from its enclosure, and it reacts violently when Wyme tries to retrieve it. The sloth appears to have gone crazy from being out in the sun too long. This whole scene, and the following conversation especially, may not strike us as plot-relevant, but it sets up an important thematic motif that Delany will return to later.

It snapped at me, and I jerked back. “Sun stroke, kid-boy. Yeah, it is crazy.”

Suddenly it opened its mouth wide, let out all its air, and didn’t take in any more. It’s all right now, I said.

Two more of the baby sloths were at the door, front cups over the sill, staring with bright, black eyes. I pushed them back with a piece of sea shell and closed the door. Antoni kept looking at the white fur ball on the sand. “Not crazy now?”

“It’s dead,” I told him.

“Dead because it went outside, da?”

I nodded.

The opening scene of “The Star-Pit” is a curious one, firstly because it’s something of a flashback (it takes place several years prior to most of the story), and also because it does not make Vyme look good, despite the fact that he’s the one narrating. First-person narrators, whether by design or through omission of detail, often come off as better than they probably were, which is not surprising; if you’re telling a story that involves you personally, you wanna make yourself look good—or at least not bad. Vyme reveals himself to be an unusually emotionally honest narrator, though, one who had made a serious mistake in the past which alienated him from the rest of his marriage group and prompted him to seek work off-planet. To make matters worse (this is not a spoiler, mind you), an unforeseen catastrophe takes Vyme’s partners and children from him; he can’t go home again, even if he wants to. Since then Vyme has basically started his life over as a mechanic at the Star-pit, a spaceport which oversees intergalactic ships as they bring back precious materials from distant worlds.

The big catch is that while space travel is common in this story’s universe, the vast majority of people can’t be space pilots; no, that position is reserved for only a tiny fraction of the population with very specific qualifications. The golden (as adjective and noun, singular and plural) are a set of people with a certain kind of psychosis and a certain hormonal imbalance which seemingly predisposes them to sociopathy (they’re often said to be stupid or mean, or both), but which also enables them to fly through deep space without going totally insane or dying. For most people, if you were to travel through space as such and such a speed for such and such a distance, you would lose your mind, then your life. The discovery of the golden was pure accident, and honestly it reminds me of the equally accidental discovery of jaunting in Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination. “The Star-Pit” and Nova are particularly reminiscent of Bester’s novel.

Through some freakish accident, two people had been discovered who didn’t crack up at twenty thousand light-years off the galactic rim, who didn’t die at twenty-five thousand.

They were both psychological freaks with some incredible hormone imbalance in their systems. One was a little oriental girl; the other was an older man, blond and big boned, from a cold planet circling Cygnus-beta: golden. They looked sullen as hell, both of them.

You may notice the one character being described as “oriental,” as is another character later on. I point this out because you may be taken aback slightly by Delany’s occasional outdated racial vocabulary (another character is described as “negroid”), which is nothing more than a product of its time. It’s also worth pointing out that Vyme is black, which is certainly a mundane details nowadays but would’ve been a rarity in SFF circa 1967. Not that such a thing was totally unheard of: Robert Heinlein and H. Beam Piper managed to sneak POC into their fiction, sometimes even all but stating a protagonist is non-white. Delany was the first, however, to write POC in magazine SFF from a non-white person’s perspective.

Anyway…

The golden are a different matter. I get strong Philip K. Dick vibes from this notion that in order to explore the vast reaches of space, it would be necessary to recruit slightly insane people who won’t go totally insane under the pressure. Golden are differentiated most apparently by the golden belts they’re required to wear, which does raise a question, and believe it or not it’s a question Delany answers: Wouldn’t it be a little too easy to pass off as a golden if you were to steal one of their belts? The thing of course is that a normal person would crack under the pressure, then die, if they were to take the role of a golden and head out for deep space—but suppose someone who’s more than a little suicidal were to do such a thing? By way of a dramatic action scene, we’re left early on with a golden’s ship without a golden to pilot it, and that’s where Ratlit comes in.

Ratlit may be the most interesting character in “The Star-Pit,” for his unusual traits and also for his ambiguity. Ratlit is a bestselling author, which is strange for two reasons: the first is that he was a literal child when he wrote it, only barely being in his teens when Vyme meets him, and the second is that he didn’t technically write it, on account of being illiterate. He had a novel dictated and it sold like crack, which I suppose makes him a child prodigy. Oh, and he really hates the golden—like really hates them, and yet he also wants to become a golden. I have to assume Ratlit just narrowly misses the qualifications for being deemed a golden, because he’s definitely an asshole, and he’s definitely an idiot. Admittedly, and I don’t think this is much of a spoiler to say, but every golden we come across in this novella is pretty much a moronic sociopath; they don’t care about other people, but they’re barely even functioning enough to take care of themselves.

Another character we’re introduced to who’s arguably even weirder than Ratlit, albeit relatively underdeveloped, is Alegra. Ratlit is a 13-year-old bestselling novelist while Alegra is a 15-year-old projecting telepath, meaning she can project her thoughts into other people’s minds. Oh, and she’s been a drug addict ever since she was an infant. Oh, and she worked as a psychiatrist (government backing and everything) when she was eight years old. Part of me has to wonder why Delany made the ages of some of his characters so goddamn low, to the point of maybe straining one’s suspension of disbelief. I have to assume he’s making a comment about child prodigies, being something of a child prodigy himself (he had read War & Peace when he was 12 or something), and the harmful ramifications of being such a young talent. Delany was 23 when he wrote “The Star-Pit,” and maybe at the time he feared he was already going to burn out as a writer. Maybe the age thing has to do with Vyme’s role as a former parent, as an adult who lost his children, though this angle doesn’t become pointed until later.

Ratlit and Alegra are both young and stupid, so naturally they hang out together a lot, and indeed their relationship may be more than just platonic. That neither of them is a golden when Vyme meets them is quite the coincidence, given their temperaments, and also quite a coincidence that they’re both child prodigies. But then, at least according to Vyme, having two such people in the same place may not be so coincidental, given the function of the Star-pit and the government’s mad scramble for more golden.

Fifteen-year-old ex-psychiatrist drug addict? Same sort of precocity that produces thirteen-year-old novelists. Get used to it.

It’s this remark (along with a few others) that makes me think Delany is trying to articulate his position as someone who was a highly precocious teenager, to the point of having a published novel by the time he was twenty. He could’ve been either an artist or a madman—or going back to Dick, he could’ve been both. It’s weird because the lectures and interviews I’ve seen of Delany make him come off as a very well-adjusted person, despite some of the drama that’s happened in his life. You see, on top of being black, growing up in an era where racial segregation was still the norm, Delany is also gay. Or maybe bisexual, there’s some debate as to what his orientation “really” is. Point being that Delany is pretty far from straight, and his queerness would not be made known to the SFF readership at large until quite a few years after his initial rise to prominence.

You can see there are a few threads going on here.

Delany’s chief concerns in this story seem to be with ethics—nay, the mere possibility of space travel—as well as parent-child relationships. I’ll talk about the former more because it holds a greater interest in an SF context. While Delany’s novella is by no means the first to deconstruct the typically gung ho attitude people have about space travel (I’m thinking of Edmond Hamilton’s masterful short story “What’s It Like Out There?”), it goes about the question in a way that probably would not have seen print a mere decade earlier. For reasons I’ll elaborate on in the spoilers section, the problem of intergalactic travel is particularly tricky here, because the only people qualified to pilot such ships must be mentally ill. Mental illness occupies the very core of “The Star-Pit,” and everything would fall apart if Delany’s exploration of the golden (who, make no mistake, are all people suffering from mental illness, with experienced golden also suffering from PTSD) didn’t ring true on some level. Thankfully, like everything else, Delany’s exploration is humane, thought-provoking, and has real human blood running in its veins.

There Be Spoilers Here

Tragedy strikes once again.

I had alluded earlier to how easy it would be to take a golden’s belt and pass off as one, and that’s what Ratlit does. Ratlit, who doesn’t quite make the cut to be a golden, takes someone’s golden belt—Alegra’s. In a revelation which admittedly doesn’t strike me as all that plausible, Alegra is diagnosed as a golden, at age 15 (golden are typically “found” when they’re in grade school), and she tells Ratlit and Vyme the “good news.” This is actually a very bad thing, though we don’t find out why until it’s far too late. See, the problem is that Alegra is a drug addict, and withdrawal is strong enough to kill her; she must be on the stuff, or else. There is another complication that, in practice, prevents her from going to space, and it’s the fact that she’s pregnant—apparently with Ratlit’s kid.

The more I think about this, the darker it sounds. Which it really is. It’s also fucked up that Ratlit and Alegra find themselves in a catch-22 where Alegra won’t survive space travel in the shape she’s in, and neither will Ratlit (for different reasons), yet Ratlit wants to go so badly and and he must’ve realized at some point that there will be no happy ending. Alegra goes through withdrawal, and Vyme isn’t able to get the drug for her in time. Ratlit goes out to space, with Alegra’s golden belt, never to be seen again. Two kids whom Vyme has gotten to know, sort of like surrogate children for him, are both taken away in what feels like the blink of an eye. An abortion would’ve saved Alegra maybe, but according to Vyme no such safe options are available on the Star-pit. It’s a horrific situation, but it only gets worse once we get all the details after the fact.

Maybe I’m old fashioned, but when someone runs off and abandons a sick girl like that, it gets me. That was the trip to Carlson’s, the one last little favor Ratlit never came back from. On the spot results, and formal confirmation in seven days. In her physical condition, pregnancy would have been as fatal as the withdrawal. And she was too ill for any abortive method I know of not to kill her. On the spot results. Ratlit must have known all that too when he got the results back, the results that Alegra was probably afraid of, the results she sent him to find. Ratlit knew Alegra was going to die anyway. And so he stole a golden belt. “Loving someone, I mean really loving someone—” Alegra had said. When someone runs off and leaves a sick girl like that, there’s got to be a reason. It came together for me like two fissionables. The explosion cut some moorings in my head I thought were pretty solidly fixed.

A gripe I do have with “The Star-Pit” is that the action reaches its climax with Alegra dying and Ratlit going on his suicide run, but when this all happens we’re not quite three quarters into the story. “The Star-Pit” is a 50-page story in its magazine publication, and the Ratlit/Alegra plot takes up maybe 30 pages, when really I wish it took up a larger chunk. Thematically we get a continuation with a new golden, a teenager nicknamed An, who brings things full circle, but the drama has deflated by this point, despite Delany’s best efforts to enfuse Vyme’s own personal drama with the right amount of pathos. We start and end with Vyme himself, who despite being reasonably good at his job is otherwise grief-stricken, a drunk, and objectively an irresponsible parent. Is he a drunk because he’s an irresponsible parent, or an irresponsible parent because he’s a drunk?

And what of the golden? The golden are the only people qualified to travel between galaxies, yet they’re qualified partly because they’re treated as pariahs by the rest of mankind, and their seeming incapability to get along with other people further reinforces their pariah status. A normal person will likely hate a golden, but will also likely be envious of them. The new golden in the story’s third act, An, has a tiny terrarium he takes around with him, and we’re taken back to the so-called sloth that went outside its enclosure and went mad. The golden venture outside their enclosure (the enclosure being the human family) and are thus crazy—only they do not necessarily die from it. Ratlit wants desperately to become a golden because he thinks his life on the Star-pit is constraining, claustrophobic, horrible, but the golden are not exactly free to do whatever they want.

Delany seems to be making an argument about the need for human interaction, and more importantly for human warmth. Vyme and his assistant Sandy (whom I didn’t even get to mention until now) are both exiles, having been permanently separated from their group marriages, trying to find redemption (or at least solace) in their work on the Star-pit, only to find that their characters have not grown stronger, their stars no brighter than before. While we don’t learn too much about the mechanics of these group marriages which have become commonplace (for instance, homosexuality is implied but never delved into), we get the strong impression that these men are worse off for having cut themselves off from their partners, Vyme because of a war which caught his family in the crossfire and Sandy because his former partners no longer want him to return. In practically every corner you look, there’s tragedy, and a yearning to transcend that tragedy—to break through the barrier, or the walls of one’s terrarium.

A Step Farther Out

I have a few small issues, mainly having to do with plausibility, but upon close inspection I think “The Star-Pit” stands out as one of Delany’s early masterworks, as well as a relatively accessible demonstration of his craft. Delany would get more experimental very shortly, but when he was writing “The Star-Pit” he must’ve been at a crossroads, at the bridge between a promising beginner and a refined craftsman. It helps that Delany’s ascension to the forefront of SFF was at a mile a minute, with him seemingly learning an important lesson with every project he finished. By the time he wrote Nova, a little over a year after he wrote “The Star-Pit,” Delany had all but perfectly balanced his penchant for flamboyance and lyricism with his immense talent as a writer of space opera—maybe the only great writer of space opera to come out of the ’60s. “The Star-Pit” is moody, deeply tragic, often filled to the brim with ideas, but it’s not rushed; it almost feels more like a compressed novel than a true novella, but it ultimately feels well-realized. Most importantly, it feels human in a way that a lot of New Wave-era science fiction doesn’t, only one thing of many that made Delany special.

1968 was the first year the Hugos had an award for Best Novella, which if you ask me was a long time coming, but better late than never. The inaugural Best Novella shortlist is also stacked, with Philip José Farmer’s “Riders of the Purple Wage” and Anne McCaffrey’s “Weyr Search” tying for the Hugo. “The Star-Pit” was also nominated, though weirdly it was not also nominated for the Nebula. I must admit I have a considerable soft spot for Farmer’s story (though most people seem to hate it), and I’m rather indifferent to McCaffrey’s, but I think at least from a modern perspective it’s fair to say Delany’s story should’ve won. “The Star-Pit” is a remarkable exploration of a question which especially occupied hard SF since at least the Campbell era, and which retains strong relevance thanks to a certain oligarch and his space program: Are we sure we ought to go to space? Not just the moon (we’ve already been there), or the other planets of our solar system, but beyond the Milky Way… beyond what our technology is currently capable of giving us, but which we may be able to reach in a few generations. We’ll have to sit on a hill, or at the top of a mountain, and we’ll have to look up at the stars and ask ourselves the question posed at the very end of Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth:

“What do we do…?”

See you next time.

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