Time Considered as a Helix of Semiprecious Stones (Synopsis)
by Samuel R. Delany
Commentary by Iven Lourie
An Introduction to the Early Works
“Lay ordinate and abscissa on the century. Now cut me a quadrant. Third quadrant if you please. I was born in ‘fifty. Here it is ‘seventy-five.” That could be Delany speaking—he wrote it—but it’s Harold Clancy Everet and the year is 2075….
The Samuel R. Delany entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (St. Martins Press) begins like this: “(1942- ) author and critic, one of the most influential and most discussed within the genre; he has taught at several universities from 1975, and from 1988 has been professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Massachusetts. He has a somewhat mixed cultural background: he is Black, born and raised in Harlem, New York, and therefore familiar with the Black ghetto; but his father, a wealthy funeral-parlour proprietor, had the family brought up in privileged, upper-middle-class circumstances—SRD was educated at the prestigious Bronx High School of Science (although he left college after only one term). This double background is evident in all his writing.”
That last line may seem like a reduction of his work, but Delany was at the forefront of the New Wave in science fiction “emphasizing cultural speculation, the soft sciences, psychology, and mythology over technology and hard SF.” (The Encyclopedia…) His contemporaries in this movement were Philip Jose Farmer, Roger Zelazny, Harlan Ellison, Ursula LeGuinn, among others. This loosely defined group of writers was well represented in Ellison’s Dangerous Visions anthologies and in 4 volumes of “speculative fiction” anthologies called QUARK , edited 1970-71 by Delany and Marilyn Hacker, a prominent Greenwich Village poet and his wife.
I had the unusual experience of meeting this writer before ever reading his work. I went as a high school student around 1962-63 to visit my brother, Dick Lourie, who was living and writing on Avenue C in the East Village in a roach-infested 3rd floor walkup studio apartment. Delany lived downstairs and dropped in for coffee one morning. He was excited about the trilogy he was working on for Ace or Ballantine; I was amazed to hear that a bohemian writer in the Village, living in a tenement with bars on every window to keep the junkies from ripping you off, was living on the advance on royalties for three unwritten novels! (For more details, ask me later) I subsequently read with pleasure the novel that earned this plum assignment, The Jewels of Aptor, which Delany wrote when he was 19 years old. It is a delightfully lyrical quest story which I always buy when I see it in used book stores to give to teenaged readers open to the magic of SF. Another surprise for me was learning at IDHHB, where I worked on editing E.J. Gold’s books years later, that “Chip” Delany and “Gene” Gold went to summer camp together and shared some unusual experiences…John Lilly’s Earth Coincidence Control Office strikes again!
I read with amazement years later Delany’s brilliant set of ‘60’s novels: Babel-17 (Nebula Award), The Einstein Intersection (Nebula Award), and Nova, not to mention the 1965 short novel The Ballad of Beta-2, another gem. These four novels are supercharged with ideas from anthropology, linguistics, mythology, and the counter-culture attitudes of the decade. Outsiders are the heroes—artists, poets, anarchists, criminals, sexual deviants, sometimes all these descriptors rolled into one or two characters.Babel-17 proposes an alien language that is so much more efficient than human languages that it gives its users psychic and telepathic abilities. A brilliant—and renegade—woman poet is the decoder of the language ergo saviour of the human intergalactic federation, and quotes of raw poetry from Marilyn Hacker introduce each chapter. The Einstein Intersection, a unique and subtle work, may require two or three readings, not the usual style for a prize-winner of the genre. The Encyclopedia entry summarizes:
This novel has strong parallels with several that we have discussed: Son of Man (Silverberg), Mindswap (Sheckley), The Demolished Man (Bester). After Nova, Delany broke with his early approach to the genre and moved on to sophisticated criticism, more explicitly pornographic, psychological, and apocalyptic fiction. Dhalgren, the 1975 blockbuster (greeted in some quarters as “the great American novel” like Tom Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow…) was too long and too murky or “mannered” for my taste. I’ve read a lot of ponderous literary and philosophical classics in my college career—but I couldn’t finish Dhalgren. To many readers, SRD is a hero for championing bisexuality, multiculturalism, and applying European literary critical ideas (like “structuralism” ) to the science fiction genre. I can only discuss the early Delany, not having read Delany the memoirist, professor, and literary critic. I feel it is important and interesting for SF as a genre that Delany’s early works are being reprinted—along with the critical essays and tell-all autobiography—by Wesleyan University Press, a bastion of multiculturalism, avant-garde thought, and political correctitude (?).
- The Einstein Intersection is remarkably compressed and densely patterned with allusive imagery. Earth has lost its humans (how is never made clear) and their corporeal form has been taken on by a race of aliens who, in an attempt to make coherent sense of the human artifacts among which they live, take on human traditions, too. Avatars of Ringo Starr, Billy the Kid and Christ appear; the hero, a Black musician who plays tunes on his murderous machete, is Orpheus and Theseus. The book is a tour de force, though a cryptic one, since the bafflement of the protagonists trying to make sense of their transformed lives tends to transfer to the reader….
Here are some sample of what I like in Delany’s prose, all quotes from the 1971 collection Driftglass which seems in retrospect a collection of his quintessential short fiction.
The Novella in Question - Summary Proper
- Two glass panes with dirt between and little tunnels from cell to cell: when I was a kid I had an ant colony.
- But once some of our four-to-six-year-olds built an ecologarium with six-foot plastic panels and grooved aluminum bars to hold corners and top down. They put I tout on the sand.
- There was a mud puddle against one wall so you could see what was going on underwater. Sometimes segment worms crawling through the reddish earth hit the side so their tunnels were visible for a few inches. In hot weather the inside of the plastic got coated with mist and droplets. The small round leaves on the litmus vines changed from blue to pink, blue to pink as clouds coursed the sky and the pH of the photosensitive soil shifted slightly. (“The Star Pit”, opening)
- Pa ran off to Mars Colony before Buddy was born. Momma drank. At sixteen Buddy used to help out in a ‘copter repair shop outside St. Gable below Baton Rouge. Once he decided it would be fun to take a ‘copter, some bootleg, a girl named Dolores-jo, and sixty-three dollars and eighty-five cents to New Orleans. Nothing taken had ever, by any interpretation, been his. He was caught before they raised from the garage roof. He lied about his age at court to avoid the indignity of reform school. Momma, when they found her, wasn’t too sure (“Buddy? Now, let me see, that’s Laford. And James Robert Warren—I named him after my third husband who was not living with me at the time—now little James, he came along in…two thousand and thirty-two, I do believe. Or thirty-four—you sure now, it’s Buddy?) when he was born. The constable was inclined to judge him younger than he was, but let him go to grown-up prison anyway. Some terrible things happened there. When Buddy came out three years later he was a gentler person than before; still, when frightened, he became violent. Shortly he knocked up a waitress six years his senior. Chagrined, he applied for emigration to one of Uranus’ moons. In twenty years, though, the colonial economy had stabilized. They were a lot more stringent with applicants than in his Pa’s day: colonies had become almost respectable. They’d started barring people with jail records and things like that. So he went to New York instead and eventually got a job as an assistant servicer at the Kennedy spaceport. (“Corona”, opening)
- Below him the spaceliner filled the hangar like a tuber an eighth of a mile long. The service crew swarmed the floor, moving over the cement like scattered ball bearings. And the music— (“Corona”, p. 83)
- “Driftglass,” I said. “You know all the Coca-Cola bottles and cut-crystal punch bowls and industrial silicon slag that goes into the sea?”
- “I know the Coca-Cola bottles.”
- “They break, and the tide pulls the pieces back and forth over the sandy bottom, wearing the edges, changing their shape. Sometimes chemicals in the glass react with chemicals in the ocean to change the color. Sometimes veins work their way through in patterns like snowflakes, regular and geometric; others, irregular and angled like coral. When the pieces dry, they’re milky. Put them in water and they become transparent again.” (“Driftglass”, title of title story explained, p. 113)
“Time Considered as a Helix of Semiprecious Stones” rightfully won both Hugo and Nebula awards for 1969. It is a perfect microcosm of SRD’s early themes and stylistic innovations. It’s protagonist is 1) an orphan, 2) a young rebel, and 3) a career thief. His companion, for the main incidents of the story, Hawk, is 1) a teenager poet, 2) a street person/ hippy, and 3) a sexual deviant of masochist persuasion (perhaps suicidal). After the paragraph I quoted to introduce Delany the writer, the character is further introduced like this:
H.C.E. constantly changes names during the story and also is a master of costume quick-changes and disguise. The main action of the novella is set in N.Y. City—HCE arrives from Bellona, off-world, with a briefcase full of stolen (unspecified) merchandise, probably jewelry. He heads directly for a bar where he knew a fence two years before. In the bar HCE meets “Maud,” – an elegantly dressed older woman who turns out to be with “Special Services,” a secret arm of the police. Delany has Maud introduce the semiprecious stones idea of the title—she opens their conversation by saying “Jasper”:
- At sixteen they let me leave the orphanage. Dragging the name they’d hung me with (Harold Clancy Everet, and me a mere lad—how many monickers have I had since; but don’t worry, you’ll recognize my smoke) over the hills of East Vermont, I came to a decision:
- Me and Pa Michaels, who had belligerently given me a job at the request of The Official looking Document with which the orphanage sends you packing, were running Opal”Pa Michaels’ dairy farm, i.e., thirteen thousand three hundred sixty-two piebald Guernseys all asleep in their stainless coffins, nourished and drugged by pink liquid flowing in clear plastic veins (stuff is sticky and messes up your hands), exercised with electric pulsers that make their muscles quiver, them not half awake, and the milk just a-pouring down into stainless cisterms. Anyway. The Decision (as I stood there in the fields one afternoon like the Man with the Hoe, exhausted with three hard hours of physical labor, contemplating the machinery of the universe through the fog of fatigue): With all of Earth, Mars, and the Outer Satellites filled up with people and what-all, there had to be something more than this. I decided to get some.
- So I stole a couple of Pa’s credit cards, one of his helicopters, and a bottle of white lightning the geezer made himself, and took off. Ever try to land a stolen helicopter on the roof of the Pan Am building, drunk? Jail, schmail, and some hard knocks later I had attained to wisdom. But remember this oh best beloved: I have done three honest hours on a dairy farm less than ten years back. And nobody has ever called me Harold Clancy Everet again. (pp. 217-18)
Maud informs HCE that he has come to the attention of her division because petty criminals and major mafiosi are not worth pursuing but anyone “upwardly mobile” in income attracts the attention of their holographic computer modeling process—and he is in this category. She shocks him by knowing of the milk farm helicopter incident, and she warns him, “You may be coming into quite a bit of money soon. If I can calculate right, I will have a helicopter full of the city’s finest arriving to take you away as you accept it into your hot little hands. That is a piece of information….” (p. 223) Then in rapid succession: the bar crowd falls into a serious brawl, the fence turns up dead on the sidewalk, the police arrive, HCE escapes and encounters the singer Hawk, Hawk examines the loot and recommends HCE tag along to an upper crust party, where the wealthy host may be a potential purchaser.
- Jasper is the pass/code/warning that the Singers of the Cities (who, last month, sang “Opal” from their divine injuries; and on Mars I’d heard the Word and used it thrice, along with devious imitations, to fix possession of what was not rightfully my own; and even there I pondered Singers and their wounds) relay by word of mouth for that loose and roguish fraternity with which I have been involved (in various guises) these nine years. It goes out new every thirty days; and within hours every brother knows it, throughout six worlds and worldlets. Usually it’s grunted at you by some blood-soaked bastard staggering into your arms from a dark doorway; hissed at you as you pass a shadowed alley; scrawled on a paper scrap pressed into your palm by some nasty-grimy moving too fast through the crowd. And this month, it was: Jasper. (p. 220)
The party sounds like a version of a late ‘60’s left-liberal political gathering on the upper east side of Manhattan—like the parties that journalist Tom Wolfe satirized in one of his ‘60’s essays. The host prides himself on his open-mindedness, and the unstated sub-text is that the aristocracy is outside the law just as the criminals are. The party is in honor of a radical woman political candidate, but the Singers steal the show since four of them gather at this party, including the eldest of the NY City Singers. The party is vividly described, with a lot of social protocol, status indicators, costume details, subtleties of exchange and conversation. On the material side, HCE shows the host his goods, and this man says that a guest is present who is much better able to afford these goods—THE Hawk, a mafia don, not to be confused with Hawk the Singer. In capsule—THE Hawk exchanges major credit chits for the jewels, Maud shows up, police helicopters descend, both HCE and THE Hawk (a.k.a. Arty) head for the elevator, HCE does two or three quick costume makeovers, he starts a fire with an incendiary device, as a distraction, Hawk the Singer helps by planting himself in the ground floor atrium and singing—so that a huge crowd gathers. The criminals slip out, Maud comes up empty-handed, but Hawk is last seen deliberately plunging into the flames at the end of his song (he survives, scarred). HCE asks THE Hawk for advice and the elder refuses to tutor the novice in crime.
HCE continues to upscale his criminal career. A string of “semi-precious stones” (one per month) are capsuled, finally he purchases a legit business on Triton, its first ice cream parlor. This becomes a huge success (shades of Hard Rock Café? Starbuck’s?). After one year passes, HCE on Triton encounters the two principals again: Maud appears as a tourist and has a soda with him at his restaurant. She brings news of Earth, of Hawk the Singer, and so on, but she makes no threats, since she’s on vacation! Arty (THE Hawk) also shows up, and HCE tells him that at some future time, Arty will demand to buy out HCE’s business, HCE will refuse, Arty will attempt to kill HCE, they outcome will depend on how well HCE has learned to maintain security, and so on. Arty congratulates HCE on his acquisition of “hologrammic information” modeling, which will enable him to fend off Special Services. He closes: “…If you can just hold out, we’ll be friends again. Someday. You just watch. Just wait.” In the final scene, HCE locks his briefcase in the ice cream parlor—but decides not to break in, just to wait for the morning cleanup staff “because there was nothing in it that wasn’t mine, anyway.” In so many words, the man who lives by thievery, changes his own name more often than the Word of the month changes, this young man is becoming settled and secure in his own turf. Another name for this theme is bildungsroman: a story of growing up and initiation into manhood.
A Brief Assessment and Suggested Topics for Conversation
If you haven’t read this novella, you may ask at his point—What’s the big deal? Hardly any science content, future fiction that could be set in Brooklyn like any of the dozens of recent gangster movies, not one admirable character in the bunch…yet, a Hugo AND a Nebula? You simply have to read Delany to get the thrill of the moods and atmospheres he creates so masterfully with his strong capabilities: 1) character creation, 2) mise en scene or brilliantly evocative description, 3) the intermingling of many social strata and multiple psychic realities into an effective dramatic vehicle (chance meetings, the party, the escape, the innuendoes of the closing conversations). “Time Considered as a Helix of Semiprecious Stones” is vintage Delany.
The protagonist of this novella is a low-life, but—he reads poetry, knows the latest music, and operates routinely as a shape-shifter. The human universe evoked sprawls across the solar system, powered by interplanetary traffic and commerce, but—it otherwise resembles the ‘60’s with the (prophetic) addition of an interplanetary guild of acknowledged—even institutionalized—minstrels. More than entertainers, bards; a Homeric resurgence in the midst of a hi-tech future. (Note that thirty years after the ‘60’s in Greenwich Village, while the new paradigm is email and on-line dialogue, not only are “the Beats” being taught in colleges, but also the “poetry slam” movement is alive and well in bars and coffee houses nationwide….) Delany succeeds in this novella in romanticizing the criminal subculture (an approach familiar for decades in Hollywood) and creating a great poetic shorthand, the semiprecious stone Words, for the entire mindset of any subculture any time.
Like Robert Silverberg, SRD is nothing if not a literary science fiction writer. Most of his longer works have sub-texts based on oblique references to mythology and world literature. An example in this novella is the choice of initials for the hero: HCE translated as Humphrey Chimpton Earwicker is a key name in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, an intentional, possibly satirical reference by Delany. The Encyclopedia invokes some of SRD’s literary models, the thieves of literature: Francois Villon and Jean Genet. There is also a great deal of the ancient heroic epics, Arthurian legend, sword and sorcery in Delany, not to mention flash and poetry. I would also invoke Edgar Alan Poe, since Delany’s technique, like the short story master’s, uses both concentration of effect and evocation of weird ambiance with precise language.
In discussing this story, I’d like to address these items:
- 1) Does the predictive potential of “hologrammic information” storage hold water, or is it a fictional ploy?
- 2) Is there ANY transcendence in this story—or elsewhere in Delany, i.e., do characters have illuminations, transform in any real way, or do they just “learn the ropes”?
- 3) What does Delany’s opus (at least the work to 1975) offer to fans of not only literary SF but metaphorical or idea-bearing SF? In other words, is ALL his work about sex, drugs, and rock and roll?