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Samuel Delany’s Empire Star

Empire Star (1966) is a prime example of Delany’s ability to challenge the mind. His prose is cryptic, where phrases often have to be reread several times to understand exactly what is happening. As can be expected, such stylism most certainly affects the interpretation.

The novella is about a young man who’s been assigned a mission, yet the backdrop by which he comes to engage the mission is anything but ordinary. The operating plot device is Tau Ceti, a star much similar to the sun, but the planets orbiting this star organize in a way that produces a gravitational effect on the environment, and Delany characterizes these with perfection. He reveals only what is necessary, a tactic that invokes the pressure to think as the scene of a world millions of miles away is conjured.

The effect of gravitation on time is the specific action that shapes the plot. Aside from the strange characters that interact with the protagonist Comet Jo, the notion that events may be either happening, or already have happened, functions to underscore the abandonment of linear narrative development. At any time expectations may be disrupted by the presence of information vital to the future so that the narration, in conjunction with Comet Jo’s “simplex mind,” are subject to any number of alternative outcomes and encounters. The significance lies in the predictive aspects of this information and the intrusion it creates into Comet Jo’s personal life.

By toying with the narrative through the concept of time travel, the stage is set to explore one of the story’s primary elements: an examination on variations of individual characteristic abilities to think. As the plot proceeds, states of consciousness are divided among the beings that inhabit Empire Star to which, any being at any time would fall into one of three categories: simplex, complex and multiplex cognition.  Such categorization is instructional for understanding how beings relate to each other, and metaphorically represents the difference between open-minded (enlightened) and close-minded individuals. As the story tends to breathe by the time-traveled interruptions to Comet Jo’s thinking and growth, paving the way to his own enlightenment, an ontological connection is formed between the three states of thinking, the stability of the narration, and the life of Comet Jo.

Imbedded within the story arises the subject of Jo’s purpose: How to contend with the plight of the Lll. These bizarre creatures seem like godly gifts to the inhabitants of the world, but to objectify them for their labors while they do nothing but good works for those who take advantage of them, is to label them slaves. Thus Delany’s story comes full circle in spite of the blindsiding narration so that scientific concepts that are difficult to comprehend become entwined with a sense of purpose. Such devices do more than entertain, they work to open up the mind to alternative explanations about reality while grounding the complexities of the universe in a sense of humanity.